In September 2021, the UK was added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist due to a rapid decline in civic freedoms. Major concerns have been raised on the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which proposes to give police more power to crack down on protests and will have serious repercussions for minority groups, including Gypsy and Traveller communities and people of colour. Several other legislative developments, such as proposed changes to the Human Rights Act, the New Elections Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, threaten fundamental rights and democratic checks and balances, which aim to hold the government accountable. During this period, there were concerning proposals by Home Secretary Priti Patel, which aim to further crackdown on the right to protest.
In September 2021, the UK was added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist due to a rapid decline in civic freedoms. Major concerns have been raised on the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which proposes to give police more power to crack down on protests and will have serious repercussions for minority groups, including Gypsy and Traveller communities and people of colour. Several other legislative developments, such as proposed changes to the Human Rights Act, the New Elections Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, threaten fundamental rights and democratic checks and balances, which aim to hold the government accountable.
Concerns over Charity Commission’s independence from party-politics
On 11th September 2021, Oliver Dowden, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wrote an op-ed for The Telegraph on the necessity “to get Britain’s charities back on track”. In Dowden’s opinion, the engagement of charities in complex social and cultural issues is distracting them from their core missions: “The most successful charities of the next century will be those focused on their core purpose of delivering positive change.” He added that there is “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. He also goes on to comment on the appointment of a new leader of the Charity Commission (the registrar and regulator of charities in England and Wales), stating that he has “instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose”.
In response to the op-ed, Maisie Hulbert, policy officer at the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), stressed the importance of the independence of the Charity Commission.
“Dowden has his own view on what positive change looks like, and the best ways in which charities should work towards that change – as we all do. However, this piece demonstrates a concerning shift in narrative in which Dowden does not point out that this is the role of charity trustees, but instead indicates that he will ensure the next chair of the Charity Commission shares his opinion.”
Peter Riddell, the former Commissioner for Public Appointments, wrote to the Rt Hon Michael Gove in July 2021, that the appointment of the next chair of the Charity Commission has already been impacted by “unnecessary and avoidable delays”.
ACEVO reiterated that the process “is not being conducted in a transparent, accountable and politically neutral way.”
“If the Commission is led by a party-political figure who supports this position, fear of regulatory action - on top of numerous other deterrents (including anti-advocacy clauses and the upcoming Policing and Elections Bills) - could deter many charities from engaging in the spaces where they are most needed. Seeking to place someone in a role to encourage such deterrence is an undemocratic abuse of power which could undermine the sector’s vital role in creating long-lasting social change.”
Rosemary Forest, Policy and Advocacy Adviser of Bond, added that Dowden’s op-ed “essentially politicised the appointment of the new Chair of the Charity Commission and further exacerbated a damaging narrative” around the role of the charity sector.
In its response to Dowden’s op-ed, NCVO pointed out that “charities can help government deliver their policy aims through being close to communities”, but the charity sector needs “a politically independent appointee” for its regulator.
The Secretary of State for @DCMS is responsible for charities. Here’s our response to his article in the @Telegraph about the work of charities, their funding, and the role of the Charity Commission and chair. [THREAD]— NCVO (@NCVO) September 13, 2021
Additionally, in response to the op-ed, The Good Law Project launched a legal challenge “Don't let Government muzzle charities” which was followed by a crowdfunding campaign and an open letter to Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries - signed by more than 20 charity leaders.
NEW: Last weekend Government announced its intention to muzzle charities by hijacking the appointment of the new Charity Commission Chair.— Good Law Project (@GoodLawProject) September 17, 2021
We don't think this is lawful. We're launching legal action. https://t.co/nNxIU7Cd7c
Independent Review of Human Rights Act and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill: new attacks on human rights?
After a reshuffle of the Cabinet, on 15th September 2021, Dominic Raab was appointed as new Secretary of State for Justice. Raab is one of the fiercest critics of the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) and has repeatedly called for its repeal.
In fact, in his speech at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference, held in Manchester between 3rd and 6th October 2021, Raab announced his intention to “overhaul” the HRA. According to CSOs, this is a drastic change from the manifesto language of an “update” to the HRA, which is currently under Independent Review. The review, which started in December 2020, is expected to report to Government by the end of October 2021.
On 17th October 2021, Raab added that the “upcoming overhaul” of the HRA would include a “mechanism” to “correct” rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.
“We want the Supreme Court to have a last word on interpreting the laws of the land, not the Strasbourg court”, Raab told The Telegraph. According to the Justice Secretary, even British troops serving overseas were being put “in harm’s way” out of fear of legal action under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Many different CSOs responded to the Review, raising serious concerns:
The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) said that the review of the Act, which asks narrow legal questions, fails to reflect on the operation of the Act in the last 20 years.
“Our experience shows us that there is still a long way to go until a culture of respect for human rights becomes a reality for all of us, here in the UK. Our submission makes it clear, however, that the route to making human rights real for everyone is not through more legislative reviews of our Human Rights Act but through human rights leadership, at all levels, ensuring that the HRA is understood and implemented every day, in every interaction a person has with public services.”
It added that the Act in its current form is an “incredibly powerful tool which has the power to create a culture of respect for human rights in the UK.”
Another Sunday, another Sunday Telegraph story demonstrating the fragile state of respect for the rule of law on the part of the UK Government. The Justice Secretary's apparent plans raise three key constitutional concerns. (1) pic.twitter.com/KmZTTmTwBM— Mark Elliott (@ProfMarkElliott) October 17, 2021
In response to Raab’s latest statements on the role of the European Court of Human Rights, the Chair of the University of Cambridge’s Law Faculty, Mark Elliott, commented via a tweet that this demonstrates the “fragile state of respect for the rule of law” by the UK government. He added that the Justice Secretary's “apparent plans” to enable ministers to “correct’ court judgments that they consider ‘incorrect’ raises profound constitutional concerns.”
Further, on 18th October 2021, a second reading of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill took place, which was first introduced to the House of Commons on 21st July 2021. According to many British CSOs, this Bill “threatens to further shield the government from accountability”, as reported on previously by the Monitor.
Among many important changes to the operation of the justice system, the Bill would deeply affect judicial review cases (i.e. the means by which the courts audit the legality of decision-making by public bodies in the UK), changing the way the so-called quashing (nullifying) orders can be applied by judges (i.e. the possibility for judges to nullify the original decision of a public authority at the end of a judicial review case).
According to the Bill, judges would be able to suspend the effect of a quashing order to a later date. As BIHR points out, this could mean that people continue to be negatively impacted by a decision even after a court has found it to be unlawful. The Bill would also give judges the possibility to limit the retrospective effect of a quashing order, so that the person taking the case may not actually see any real-life impact for them.
As Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns of Liberty, summarises:
“The Bill stands to impose weaker remedies upon judges, which may deprive claimants of proper redress, discourage people from taking action against the government and undermine the rule of law. It also proposes to remove a vital safeguard that protects people from mistakes in tribunals. As this safeguard usually applies in immigration and asylum cases, this will lead to people being deported when by right they should be allowed to stay in the country.”
New measures to curb protests to be added to Policing Bill
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (known as the Policing Bill) is continuing its passage through the British parliament and is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords.
In mid-September 2021, more than 350 organisations, including human rights groups, charities and faith bodies, wrote to the government explaining that the measures would have a “profound impact” on freedom of expression, and represent “an attack on some of the most basic democratic rights of citizens”.
The Bill’s breadth and size has also led many parliamentarians to criticise it for eroding parliamentary scrutiny. Adding to the opposition against the Bill, a group of former police leaders, senior officers and advisers wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel to express their concerns about some proposals in the Bill that could “negatively affect relationships” between the police and the public, calling on the government to reconsider those measures that could “undermine the work police colleagues are doing to prevent and reduce serious violence, and put already marginalised communities at further risk of harm”.
Furthermore, at the beginning of October 2021 the Home Secretary announced new proposals to curb protests to be added to the Policing Bill (see more below).
This comes as a reaction to the Insulate Britain protests held in London during September 2021. The group, which is calling for a national programme to ensure British houses are insulated to be low energy and cut carbon emissions by 2030, blocked the major roads around London, including the M1, M4 and M25 motorways. During these blockades, three court injunctions were issued against the group. On 21st September 2021 an original injunction granted to National Highways banned demonstrations on the M25 and was followed by an injunction, approved on 24th September 2021, which restricted protests around the Port of Dover. A third injunction was granted on 2nd October 2021, banning protesters from obstructing traffic and access to motorways and major roads in and around London. On 4th October 2021, 54 people were arrested after traffic was brought to a standstill in the capital, with the group blocking three major routes – the Blackwall Tunnel, Hanger Lane and Wandsworth Bridge. Thus far, 111 activists were served orders under the government’s injunction to keep them off the M25.
Many CSOs in the UK have warned that the ultimate effect of these proposals will be to further clamp down on the right to protest, with significant ramifications for marginalised communities who are already subject to disproportionate and oppressive policing.
Liberty once again reiterated its petition calling on the Home Secretary Priti Patel and Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab “to scrap damaging proposals in the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill”, including those which “threaten freedom of expression and assembly, increase sentences and police powers aimed at restricting protestors, and criminalise the way of life of the Gypsy and Traveller communities and harms access to the countryside”.
Everyone should be able to challenge injustice and stand up for a cause they believe in.— Liberty (@libertyhq) October 26, 2021
But the #PolicingBill is an attack on our fundamental right to protest.
It must not become law. Sign the petition.
Misogynistic harassment and stalking against BBC female journalists
On 5th October, BBC reporter Fiona Irving was covering local bin strikes in Brighton, when her broadcast was interrupted by a man, who shouted: “F*** her right in the p****!” in front of the camera and was then joined by six other men, cheering.
According to a media report, police are looking for the men with a view to potentially prosecuting them under public order legislation. On Twitter, Irving called out the incident as “not funny” and “misogynistic”.
Reporting live on the refuse collectors strike in #Brighton today when around 7 men jumped in front of the camera shouting aggressive and threatening terms. It’s not funny. It’s misogynistic. Just calling it out.— Fiona Irving (@journofi) October 5, 2021
This incident comes after another case of harassment against a BBC female journalist reached a conclusion in court. In mid-September, in Northern Ireland, before the Dublin Children's Court, a 17-year-old boy pleaded guilty to harassing BBC journalist Aileen Moynagh, after he repeatedly sent her threatening messages on social media and stalked her at her newsroom in Belfast from 25th October 2020 to the end of February 2021. Despite being warned by Garda (the Irish police) not to contact her, the teenager even travelled to Belfast, and was within a couple of hundred yards of her workplace. Moynagh said she had to move out of her house for five days and was concerned about her movements.
During Garda interviews, the boy admitted he had an “obsessive crush” on Moynagh, and had previously been cautioned for similar approaches to RTÉ journalists. The judge ordered that the teenager may not leave Dublin without approval from his parents and a detective; he was also banned from accessing the Internet, except for educational purposes. Sentencing was adjourned to November 2021.
Journalist covering COVID-19 stories receives hundreds of online threats
On 18th October, Sunday Independent journalist Rodney Edwards received hundreds of threatening messages on social media from “anti-vax, anti-lockdown, anti-media" people - such as “Have your eyes on the back of your head, because your gonna need them”. The journalist has been covering stories related to the pandemic for the Sunday Independent.
On 19th October 2021, Edwards tweeted that all threats were reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is now investigating.